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We need an honest dialogue about Islamic fundamentalism

I want to begin an honest dialogue with Islam. And I want to include those who are not followers of Islam who  defend it in its excessive offense-taking in the name of respect for all religions.

I want to begin an honest dialogue with Islam. And I want to include those who are not followers of Islam who defend it in its excessive offense-taking in the name of respect for all religions. This includes people like the head of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who has given tacit support to Sharia law in England — law that, in even it most benign form, does not generally grant equal rights to women. It includes those who, while not calling for the death of the publishers of material critical of Islam, still agreed that limits should be put on their ability publish such things.

The reason for this dialogue is that I want certain interpretations of Islam to join the modern world. In the modern world, homosexuality is not punishable by death, and is not illegal (unfortunately, we in the west still have some work to do in this area). Adulterers are not buried up to their shoulder and stoned to death. Apostates and blasphemers are not punished in any way, much less by being put to death. Women have equal right to socialize, to work, to own property, to choose their husband. There will forever be things about all religions that I find distasteful. But on issues such as these, there is no room for concession.

I was raised by compassionate Catholic parents who taught me to respect all people and their differences. My liberal arts education furthered that, teaching me the values of multiculturalism and of respect for all cultures. These are certainly very noble values. I had long been the kind of liberal who fell too deep into the belief that cultures are not better or worse, they are merely different — that one has no right to criticize other cultures, as you cannot understand truly understand them as an outsider. I am casting that aside. And at the moment, Islam is my target.

Many interpretations among adherents
I understand that Islam is not monolithic. Like every other religion, Islam has multiple sects, and within those, nearly as many interpretations as there are adherents. Some generalizations made here will likely draw cries of racism and bigotry. Let me be perfectly clear that I fully understand that many Muslims are not sexist, are not homophobic, do not demand that apostates and blasphemers be put to death. At this moment in history however, Islam has more than its share of those.

The inescapable reality is that, as the world’s fastest growing religion by some measures, the problems with Islam are not going away and must be addressed. Islam has earned our scrutiny, by being large and being loud. Liberal, progressive followers of Muhammad must be the loudest voices against the authoritarian and backward excesses committed by the conservatives and fundamentalists.     

I am not so naïve as to expect the eradication of some of religions’ sillier or more dangerous beliefs in my lifetime, whether of the Abrahamic faiths or the rest of the multitude. And taking a hard-line approach to some of Islam’s offensive practices may only garner cries of bigotry and racism, cries that do sometimes bear a stamp of validity.  It may serve to alienate and divide, making modernization and integration even more difficult.

Seeking mutual understanding
These issues will not be solved in the pages of Op-Ed columns. It requires dialogue and mutual understanding. Some of this distaste for Islam is likely rooted in my and others’ modern, western ignorance of Islam and the myriad cultures where it has flourished. I have no qualms about saying that the burqa is wrong, but I would not say the same about the hijab. Somewhere in there is a line. But I will not claim to be able to unwrap centuries of the history of women in Islam in a few paragraphs. 

Many Muslims do not call for the heads of infidels every time a cartoon depicting Muhammad is published.  Who is to say which interpretation is more or less accurate representation of a “true” Islam? And what of those Muslims who aren’t so bloodthirsty as to call for the murder of those “offenders,” but stop short of saying that punishment is unreasonable?

Most major religions’ holy books are chock full of the obscene, the offensive, and the now illegal. Their institutions and their adherents are a welcome part of modern, free society insofar as they abandon those. While Islam is not the only offender of the world’s major religions, its fundamentalists are right now the greatest offender. And for inclusion in modern society, all of Islam must begin to abandon its outdated teachings and laws.

Patrick Phenow is a graduate student in urban and regional planning at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.